As you walk into the thick cloud of fog, you can’t see anything at all in front of you … all you can hear are screams. Then, when the smoke clears a little, you see it: A grotesque skeleton monster, its gnarled hands reaching out for you. There’s no escape. The only way out is through. And if you show any fear, the nightmare is only going to get worse.
For those of us who like to be scared – you know, for fun – there’s no better way to do it than at Universal Orlando’s Halloween Horror Nights. This special ticketed event, now in its 32nd year, happens after the theme park closes to regular guests for the day. The sun goes down, the smoke goes up and the terror begins. The event includes 10 haunted houses, with themes like “Stranger Things,” “Chucky,” “The Last of Us” and classic Universal monsters. Plus, there are five walk-through scare zones on pathways throughout the park and a twisted aerial art and illusion theater show called “Nightmare Fuel.”
The Halloween Horror Nights Experience
I go to Halloween events at theme parks across the country, and Universal’s is by far the most entertaining and immersive, with incredibly well-designed costumes, special effects and sets.
In the course of one evening at Halloween Horror Nights, I dodged the stabs of a murderous doll, saw a man sell his soul to the devil, ran through the ruins of Pittsburgh escaping fungus-infested clickers and bloaters, traveled to the Upside Down to save a bunch of kids from Vecna, witnessed a violent exorcism, survived a Yeti attack (several, actually), narrowly escaped being sacrificed by blood-obsessed colonists, trawled the bone-lined corridors of the Paris catacombs, battled an evil wizard, and watched an ordinary carnival clown become an uber-villain right before my eyes.
It was delightful.
This year, the production values are higher than I’ve ever seen them. In different rooms in the mazes, you could encounter cleverly placed mirrors to make it seem like there are endless monsters after you, bursts of air that create the illusion of knives being thrown at you, mists of water meant to make you feel like you’ve just been infected with the cordyceps fungus that ends humanity in “The Last of Us,” or smells that enhance the immersion. In Universal Monsters: Unmasked, we follow the Phantom of the Opera into the catacombs beneath Paris, and smell roses when we reach the flower-laden tombs. In The Exorcist: Believer, the smells are very different, not in a good way.
What Else Is in Store?
Not all the Halloween celebrations happen “in the fog,” as Halloween Horror Nights fans refer to the event. The Halloween Horror Nights Tribute Store, a gift shop to end all gift shops, is open during regular park hours and doesn’t require an additional ticket. This year, the immersive multi-room experience is themed to a comic book. Upon walking into McPherson’s Collectibles, Cards & Comics, you are immediately transported to shopping rooms themed to stories in the book – a macabre Victorian cemetery, a film noir detective’s office, a corpse-filled 1950s diner and the bastion of Jack the Ripper.
If you’re a true Halloween Horror Nights fan, you can trace the lore of each room in the store to recurring storylines that appear year after year in the different mazes and scare zones, building on each other to create an entire mythology. There are also fun Easter eggs, like books on display that include the famous crocodile parade float from Universal’s annual Mardi Gras event, and Earl the Squirrel, the mascot of the park’s holiday celebrations.
The mazes are terrifyingly fun, and the “Nightmare Fuel” show features jaw-dropping pyrotechnics and physical feats; this year, like every year, I watched most of it mouth agape, wondering how the performers could possibly pull off what they were pulling off.
The Best Part
But my absolute favorite element of Halloween Horror Nights is the monstrous food the park creates to match the themes of the haunted houses. This year, I tried a spicy pineapple-ham pizza from Surfer Boy Pizza, the same combo that Argyle challenges his friends to “try before you deny” in the most recent season of “Stranger Things”; Dr. Oddfellow’s Carn-Evil Dog, a hot dog on a Funfetti bun with Kool-Aid pickles and bubblegum mustard; and a Peanut Blooder Burger inspired by Universal Monsters: Unmasked, which was a smashburger with peanut sauce and jalapeno bacon on a black “vampire bun.” Unsurprisingly, it didn’t have any garlic on it.
Halloween Horror Nights runs through Nov. 4, but it’s never too early to start planning for next year. Save on Universal Orlando admission with AAA Tickets.
Featured image: Courtesy of NBCUniversal